Monday 16 December 2013

The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat

The British: A Genetic Journey is the latest book by Alistair Moffat, the co-founder of the DNA testing companies BritainsDNA, ScotlandsDNA, IrelandsDNA and YorkshiresDNA. Moffat was previously the Director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television. He currently also serves as the Rector of St Andrew’s University. Moffat’s business partner is James Wilson, who works at the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, and is BritainsDNA’s chief scientist.

According to the pre-publication publicity from the publisher Birlinn Books the book was originally planned to be written by both Alistair Moffat and James Wilson with the comedian Eddie Izzard lined up to write the foreword. It was originally scheduled for publication in March 2013 to coincide with the screening of the BBC programme Meet the Izzards in which Eddie Izzard, with the aid of Jim Wilson, went on a journey to explore his deep ancestry though DNA testing.

For whatever reasons the book was obviously extensively delayed but it was eventually published at the beginning of November. Until fairly close to the publication date the book was shown on and other websites with both Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffat as co-authors and with the advertised foreword from Eddie Izzard. An example of the old cover can be seen here.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I received my copy of the book from Amazon to find that Alistair Moffat was listed as the sole author. I could not find Jim Wilson’s name mentioned anywhere in the book. Furthermore, the long-promised foreword from Eddie Izzard is notable by its absence. Eddie Izzard similarly doesn’t get a mention in the book despite the fact that BritainsDNA did the DNA testing for Meet the Izzards and even went to the trouble of setting up a dedicated IzzardsDNA website.

The book is described on the dustjacket as being “based on exciting new research”. Having now read the book I’m at a loss to understand quite what this exciting new research actually is. The book itself mostly focuses on history and pre-history, with a heavy emphasis on pre-history, and there is very little on genetics. The genetics component largely consists of summaries of a small selection of genetics papers combined with a rehash of the many press releases issued by BritainsDNA over the last few years, some of which have attracted publicity in the British media.

Chapter 6 covers the Roman occupation of Britain. Alistair Moffat read out large extracts from this chapter during his lecture at Who Do You Think You Are? Live in February 2013.  I wrote about the misconceptions in this talk at the time. Sadly nothing has changed and no new evidence is offered.

In Chapter 9 on “The Royal British” we are regaled with the story of Prince William’s supposed Indian ancestry. This story was published in an advertorial in The Times newspaper in June this year and I discussed the problems with this research in an earlier blog post. Unfortunately, the book adds no further evidence to support the claims.

The casual reader of the book who is not familiar with the scientific literature will possibly have difficulty distinguishing between the genuine research published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and Alistair Moffat’s own somewhat unique take on our ancestral origins. There is not a single reference in the book and it is therefore not clear which genetics findings are based on peer-reviewed research, which sections are based on BritainsDNA’s unpublished research, and which sections are merely Moffat's own speculations. Some of the more ludicrous interpretations appear to be the product of Moffat’s fertile imagination.

The reader who is not familiar with the basics of genetic genealogy will probably also be somewhat confused by Moffat’s rather muddled terminology and his highly romanticised and at times laughable interpretations of our genetic history. He appears to have a very limited understanding of genetics. Confusingly he uses the word “marker” to describe both haplogroups (the branches of the human Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA trees) and the markers known as SNPs – single-nucleotide polymorphisms –  that define those branches. For example, the mtDNA haplogroup L3 is described as being “a marker labelled L3”. This is particularly misleading for mitochondrial DNA because haplogroups are sometimes defined by several SNPs and, as can be seen on Phylotree, there are in fact three markers commonly used to define L3. Furthermore, especially for mtDNA, the same SNPs can occur in parallel in different haplogroups.

Moffat has a touching but misguided faith in the “ability of scientists to identify the origins and dates of DNA markers and to use them to track the movement of people across the Earth”. He tells us that “The dim and very distant prehistoric past can come brilliantly and movingly alive when the passage of a marker is traced from Manchuria and the shores of the Yellow Sea in the North Pacific clear across the Eurasian landmass to be found in Edinburgh in 2013.”  He attempts to correlate specific "markers" (more correctly, haplogroups) with ethnic groups or tribes such as the Vikings, the Picts, and the Maetae based on the flimsiest of evidence, conjuring up pictures in the reader’s mind of little bands of haplogroup armies migrating in unison in order to preserve the integrity of their markers. Unfortunately our genetic ancestry is somewhat more complicated than that. The problems of making such simplified interpretations and assigning arbitrary labels to groups and cultures are nicely summarised in Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing, a pamphlet published earlier this year by Sense About Science.

Moffat unfortunately makes no attempt to explain any of the marker names and labels that he uses and provides no resources where the reader might seek clarification. The problem is readily apparent in the opening chapter of the book where Moffat’s imagination runs riot with the descriptive names used for the genetic groups that he describes:
     "On any London Monday morning packed trains rattle into King’s Cross, Euston, Cannon Street and Waterloo. The brakes hiss, the doors open and Saracens, Saxons, Berbers, Cave Painters, Vikings, Angles and Picts pour out onto the platforms. On any Saturday afternoon at Ibrox, St James’s Park, Old Trafford and Anfield crowds of Caledonians, Deer Hunters, Kurgans, Iberians, Rhinelanders and Anatolians roar on their teams, passionate in support, their sporting allegiances central to their identities. On any weekday morning all over Britain the school run delivers the children of the First Farmers, the Shell Collectors, the Foragers, the Shebans and the Yenesei to the gates of the playground.
     These are the British, named by their DNA markers, all of them immigrants, all of them descendants of men and women from somewhere else, from the distant, shadowy millennia of deep time, the survivors of many epic journeys lost in the darkness of the past."
The names he uses here are in fact the nicknames that BritainsDNA assigns to the various Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups and their sub-branches. There is a page in the ISOGG Wiki which provides a translation of the BritainsDNA nicknames for the Y-DNA haplogroups, but such names have no scientific basis. Furthermore, the ancestry we inherit on the Y-chromosome line (males only) and the mitochondrial DNA line represents only a decreasing fraction of our total ancestry as we look further back in time.

BritainsDNA mostly use their own proprietary S series names for the Y-SNPs that define the male-line branches of the tree, and these marker names are used throughout the book. A full list of the alternative and better known SNP names can be found in the ISOGG Y-SNP index.

In Moffat’s confused and simplified version of our genetic ancestry “Only 1.5% of all British and Irish Y-chromosome markers, principally M26 [the SNP that defines haplogroup I2a1a] from the ice age refuges and S185 [also known as L161.1, the SNP which defines haplogroup I2a1b2] from across Doggerland, certainly predated the arrival of the farmers c4000 BC, and a further 3.5% may have done.” We are then told that “Archaeology and DNA appear to agree on the origins of the vast majority of the incomers to Britain and Ireland after c4200 BC, those enriched for the G lineages.” The reason for this is supposed to be that the Y-chromosome “marker” of Ötzi the Iceman is “in the haplogroup G and it makes a clear link with the development of farming in Europe.” He then adds: “Almost certainly, those who carried the G markers sailed to Britain and Ireland in groups.”

The true story is of course much more complicated than that, and scientists and archaeologists don't have all the answers. There is no general agreement as to when and, most importantly, where the various haplogroups originated. There is also no evidence that any haplogroup was exclusive to any particular ethnic group in the past. Ancient DNA analysis and comprehensive Y-chromosome sequencing will provide further insights. Only a limited number of Y-DNA samples have been extracted from ancient DNA specimens to date. Richard Stevens provides a useful map showing the location of the finds together with details of the associated scientific papers where the results were published. Note that no ancient Y-DNA samples have yet been analysed from the British Isles. Comprehensive Y-chromosome sequencing is still in its infancy though we can expect to see a flood of new results in 2014 from genetic genealogists who have taken the state-of-the-art comprehensive Y-DNA sequencing tests. And of course the Y-chromosome markers, which are the primary focus of Moffat's book, only tell us about our ancestry on the fatherline or patriline, which represents only a small percentage of our total ancestry.

At times the prose is so melodramatic as to be unintentionally hilarious. For example, Moffat correctly notes that R1b-M269 is the most common haplogroup in Europe, and that it increases in frequency from east to west, but then goes on to offer the following explanation for the dominance of R1b (pages 99-100):
     "This increase in frequency from east to west obviously shows the direction of travel and the marker’s origins. R1b-M269 is the DNA of a second wave of farmers and as this revolutionary way of life, of producing food, washed across Europe, this marker, which first arose in the Near East, became tremendously widespread. And its dynamic movement to every corner of the continent shows something unarguable, that this new wave of farming and farmers was not a process of acculturation or adoption. Rather, it was the cultural cargo of an invasion, the deposit of a takeover by new people, the bearers of the marker of R1b-M269.
     Recent research has dated the origin of the cluster of R1b Y-chromosome markers to the middle of the third millennium BC and attached its dramatic spread across Europe to the advance of the Beaker People. And it seems that there was conflict, perhaps even something close to genocide. When the carriers of the R1b lineages arrived in Britain and Ireland, they took over, and this process must have involved the elimination of many of the men who carried the G lineages of the first farmers." 
Y-DNA haplogroup G is indeed the predominant haplogroup found in the very limited range of ancient DNA samples from the Neolithic period and only one R1b sample has been published to date, but we cannot extrapolate from 40 or so samples and conclude that all of the first farmers were haplogroup G. The published scientific papers on R1b are in fact contradictory and do not agree on the date of the origin of R1b. Mass genocide is one far-fetched hypothesis to account for the present-day dominance of R1b in Europe, but it is equally possible that R1b has spread dramatically purely by chance. Moffat is seemingly unaware of the work of his Chief Scientist, Jim Wilson, who was one of the authors of a recent paper entitled The peopling of Europe and the cautionary tale of Y chromosome lineage R-M269 (Busby GBJ, Brisighelli F, Sanchez-Diz P et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2012; 279: 884–892) in which the authors concluded that "the existing data and tools are insufficient to make credible estimates for the age of this haplogroup, and conclusions about the timing of its origin and dispersal should be viewed with a large degree of caution". A recent paper by Sikora et al in Investigative Genetics (2013; 4: 25) entitled Modeling the contrasting Neolithic male lineage expansions in Europe and Africa provides a summary of the contrasting findings in the literature. The authors use a simple demographic model which suggests that "in Europe, the R1b lineage experienced an extremely rapid and extensive increase as soon as it entered the continent, expanding more than a thousandfold in a few generations".

The lack of basic research that has gone into the genetics aspects of the book is evidenced in the statement in the final chapter on Comings and Goings: “Near Eastern markers can be distinguished in the modern population of Britain but specifically Jewish DNA is hard to find.” Moffat goes on to provide an outdated description of the Cohen Modal Haplotype, but seems to be blissfully unaware of the large number of scientific studies investigating “Jewish” DNA. It has been found that there are a number of Y-DNA and mtDNA subclades that are almost exclusively confined to people with Jewish ancestry. This oversight might perhaps explain why, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, his company mistakenly ascribed a Japanese origin to an Ashkenazi Jewish customer.

Some of the genetic findings he discusses may be more plausible, but it is a shame that the company’s scientists have so far failed to publish any of their research. I do not feel qualified to comment on the historical content which comprises the majority of the book. This subject matter might well be of interest to the general reader who wishes to have an overview of British history and pre-history. However, the lack of references is a cause for concern, especially in view of the fact that Moffat has a background in journalism rather than academic research.

However, if you are interested in the genetic history of the British then I regret that this genetic jumble of a book cannot be recommended. I can only think that Jim Wilson and Eddie Izzard are very grateful that they do not have their names associated with it.

Despite my reservations about Alistair Moffat's book, please note that the Chromo 2 test offered by his company BritainsDNA is a credible and useful test for males wishing to explore their deep ancestry and who would like to have a detailed Y-DNA haplogroup assignment. There are also a number of other tests on the market at varying prices. For details see the ISOGG Y-SNP testing chart. For an explanation of the different deep ancestry tests and possible future developments in this fast-changing market see my article on a confusion of SNPs. Y-SNP testing is best co-ordinated through a Y-DNA haplogroup project. Please note that Y-SNP tests do not currently have a direct application for genealogy. For information on suitable tests for genealogical purposes see the beginners' guides to genetic genealogy in the ISOGG Wiki.

See also
Genetic astrology: a tale of misleading claims and legal threats

Related blog posts
- BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard
Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"
More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat
BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release

© 2013 Debbie Kennett


Dr D said...

Thanks for the preview. I was just notified this morning by Amazon that my long pre-ordered copy of the book will be delivered tomorrow.

Dave Dowell

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks Dave. Are you planning to do a review? I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

lachancey said...

I do not suppose I'll read his diversionary discourses, but thanks for the great links given during your review!

Howard Benbrook said...

Oof! Remind me to send anything that I ever write to you for edit/peer review! But I can see your points are very well made, Debbie. Did you think to post a layman's version of this on Amazon? Their blurb tells us, ever so helpfully, that: "In an epic narrative, sometimes moving, sometimes astonishing, always revealing, Moffat writes an entirely new history of Britain". Wow! Where did I get the idea that it was somehow different? I particularly relish the representation of political concepts like countries with the migrations of humanoid species. Well no, perhaps "relish" is not quite the right word...

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks LA. I'm glad you found the links useful.If you've not already done so you might also to look at the slides from Michael Hammer's R1b presentation at the FTDNA conference. The conference slides are all up in our GAP pages.

Debbie Kennett said...

Howard, I was hoping someone else might do a review for Amazon. It would certainly be much easier from a genetics perspective if people did all stay in the same country and if country boundaries never changed! Unfortunately real life is not quite like that!